The Old Man

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service
    Macmillan, 600 pp, £9.99, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 43969 5
  • Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude
    Faber, 472 pp, £9.99, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 22876 8

When Isaac Deutscher was writing his great three-volume biography in the 1950s, Leon Trotsky was a name to conjure with. The first volume came out in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death and 14 years after Trotsky’s murder in Mexico by Stalin’s agent. The epic battle between the two antagonists was still fresh in people’s minds; all over the world, small stubborn groups of ‘Trotskyites’ fought the Stalinists in official Communist Parties. Trotsky’s works were widely read and translated into many languages, especially the brilliant History of the Russian Revolution and The Revolution Betrayed, as was Deutscher’s biography, based on the Trotsky archives at Harvard and in Amsterdam. In Deutscher’s account, Trotsky was the revolution’s ‘prophet’, armed in the first volume, unarmed in the second and outcast in the third. Love him or hate him, Trotsky – organiser of the October seizure of power, charismatic leader of the Red Army during the Civil War – seemed a man for the ages, one of the great figures of the 20th century.

Trotsky’s vilification by Stalin was part of the epic. It started in the 1920s with a succession struggle in which Trotsky, the most famous man in Russia after Lenin, was one major contender and Stalin the other. A weakness of Trotsky’s position was that he had joined the Bolsheviks so late: not until the summer of 1917, after years of attacking Lenin as the splitter of the social democratic movement. Stalin and his supporters played this for all it was worth, dredging up Trotsky’s most vicious attacks on Lenin from before the Revolution, and were equally successful in representing him as a cosmopolitan Jewish intellectual unsuited to lead a (Russian) workers’ party. His political fall after Lenin’s death in 1924 was spectacular in its speed and depth. By 1927, Stalin felt in a strong enough position to engineer Trotsky’s expulsion from the Party; a few months later he was exiled to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan; and by 1929, in a remarkable gesture of repudiation, he was deported from the Soviet Union altogether ‘for “anti-Soviet work”’. That wasn’t the end of the story: Stalin’s obsession with Trotsky grew in absentia. In the Soviet Union and the international Communist movement he was the demon driving counter-revolution throughout the world, a traitor in league with foreign intelligence services, and ultimately with Fascism; and in the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s an array of Old Bolshevik defendants – some of them his former supporters, others not – were convicted of being agents of his conspiracy against the Soviet Union and executed. He was now ‘Judas-Trotsky’, a creature so inhuman he couldn’t even be referred to by name and patronymic.

His destruction had been on the agenda of Soviet intelligence for some years before the show trials; Stalin was reportedly angry that it was taking so long. But there were complications. From the standpoint of European governments, Trotsky was the arch-revolutionary, not the arch-counter-revolutionary, hence an undesirable immigrant. When the Turks finally agreed to take him in, they made it a condition that there should be no Soviet assassination attempts while he was on Turkish soil. After Turkey, Trotsky embarked on a dismal odyssey in which he tried to find a European resting place while various European states, unwilling to add another problem to their relations with the Soviet Union, thought up reasons not to let him stay – the Labour government in Britain played a particularly shabby role. He was an embarrassment to the left, which was even more responsive than the right to Soviet pressure. Finally, thanks to the support of Diego Rivera and the willingness of Mexico’s left-wing president to stand up to the local Communist Party, he found a haven, if not a safe one, in Coyoacán until his murder in 1940.

In the Soviet Union, Trotsky remained a villain and a non-person almost to the end. Khrushchev rehabilitated some of the Old Bolsheviks killed by Stalin, but he had no interest in rehabilitating Trotsky. Nor did anyone else, apparently. In the 1960s, reform-minded Soviet intellectuals agitated, unsuccessfully, for the rehabilitation of another of Stalin’s old opponents, Nikolai Bukharin. But Bukharin, unlike Trotsky, was seen as a moderate, someone who might have represented an alternative to Stalinism and who could be invoked by advocates of a return to the economic policies of the 1920s. When Gorbachev, intellectually formed in the 1960s, came to power 20 years later, he formally rehabilitated Bukharin. Not Trotsky, however (though Robert Service oddly implies the contrary): like most other Soviet Communists, Gorbachev still had the instinctive revulsion against him acquired in his youth. Even in 1987, he still regarded Trotsky as the quintessential anti-Leninist, though he did allow him to be discussed in print. There was a small surge of interest in Trotsky among Soviet intellectuals in the late 1980s, but the collapse of the Soviet Union ensured that it was short-lived.

In 1992 Dmitri Volkogonov, a former general in the Soviet army who had made a splash a few years earlier with a revisionist biography of Stalin, came out with a sensational Trotsky biography (published in English in 1996), drawing on new sources, including the NKVD secret archives and the insider testimony of his friend Pavel Sudoplatov, the high-ranking NKVD officer charged by Stalin with organising Trotsky’s murder. Volkogonov was well along in his political evolution from anti-Stalinist Leninist to anti-Leninist when he wrote the Trotsky biography. Thus, while his Trotsky was a Leninist revolutionary (major revisionism in Soviet terms), Volkogonov no longer approved of Leninist revolutionaries. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky: they were all men of blood to him now, historically almost indistinguishable from each other. Still, there was a tinge of admiration for the outsize personality, along with astonishment that the demon proved to be human.

Is it time, then, for a new biography? Robert Service notes that his is ‘the first full-length biography of Trotsky written by someone outside Russia who is not a Trotskyist’. True, if not necessarily sufficient. Service is already the author of biographies of Lenin and Stalin, however, and these things run in threes, or at least publishers would like them to. In contrast to Deutscher, who was first into the Harvard archive and had unique (at the time) access to its closed section, or Volkogonov, who had the scoop on Stalin’s hunt for the kill, Service has no major new sources to offer, though he has conscientiously mined the many old ones. An underlying agenda, no doubt, is to correct the picture drawn by Deutscher and by Trotsky himself, which Service sees as over-sympathetic on Deutscher’s part and self-serving on Trotsky’s, but he keeps this out of the text (and doesn’t use the footnotes to quarrel with other historians). Some reviewers have seen Service as hostile to his subject, but I see it not so much as hostility as a satisfaction in being indifferent – the kind of passive-aggressive approach that can give objectivity a bad name. A sour note prevails; each grudging positive assessment is balanced by a negative, and the two are never measured against each other because that would involve giving an opinion. Needless to say, the book’s less fun to read than Deutscher or Volkogonov.

Trotsky, however, was not a man for fun. Characterised by Service as more puritanical even than Lenin, he insisted on punctuality, accuracy and polished shoes (even during the Civil War) and led a highly disciplined life, if you don’t count the bouts of sickness and fainting that regularly put him out of commission at critical moments. It is ironic that present-day biographers feel obliged to foreground his love affairs (with the British artist Clare Sheridan during the Civil War and the Mexican Frida Kahlo two decades later) when there were so few, especially for such a striking and charismatic public figure, and those there were so brief. To his second wife, Natalia Sedova, he was quite an exemplary husband (if you like the dominant type around whom the household must revolve), though Service scolds him for abandoning his first wife and failing to give the necessary emotional support to his schizophrenic daughter, Zina, who killed herself in Berlin in 1933. But intimacy was not one of his talents. As his contemporary Anatoly Lunacharsky put it, ‘he had immense imperiousness and an inability or unwillingness to be in any way kind or attentive to people.’ In other words, he was the anti-Bill-Clinton of the Russian Revolution, and it cost him.

All this, Trotsky might object, is trivial: what matters is his service to the Revolution, his contribution as a Marxist theorist and publicist, and the force of his indictment of Stalinism. On his service to the Revolution, the big doubter was Stalin, who made tremendous efforts to write Trotsky out of the historical record. But in the long run it didn’t stick, at least not outside the former Soviet Union. Trotsky is a towering figure in almost all (non-Soviet) histories of the October Revolution, including his own (though in Red October the late Robert Daniels argued that he was a brilliant rationaliser of events whose post factum claims to have planned everything in advance should be taken with a grain of salt). Service’s account is conventional except for its brevity – Chapter 19 on the ‘Seizure of Power’ takes up a mere nine pages – and dryness, which puts it in a different emotional world from Deutscher, for whom the word ‘revolution’ was sacred and October an awe-inspiring moment in human history. It’s the same for the Civil War. Service, like Deutscher, gives Trotsky high marks for creating the Red Army and leading it to victory; the difference is that, for Deutscher, that victory really mattered. Volkogonov and other post-Soviet Russian historians have made a big point of Trotsky’s ruthlessness in the Civil War and his willingness to impose discipline by shooting. Service has the same view, but he presents it more matter of factly and doesn’t see it as distinguishing Trotsky from Lenin or the Bolshevik leadership in general. If there were a finest hour in Service’s story (a convention of heroic biography he scorns), it would be the Civil War, which brought to the fore Trotsky’s courage, efficiency and organising ability. Service even gives Trotsky credit for not having fallen in love with war, despite his (much criticised) suggestion that the discipline and precision of military life would be useful for Russia’s working class.

As a politician, Trotsky gets low marks from Service. First of all, he was extremely skittish about taking important jobs. This started in October 1917 when, to Lenin’s bewilderment, he refused to allow discussion of Lenin’s proposal that he head the government (‘Why ever not?’ Lenin asked. ‘It was you who stood at the head of the Petrograd Soviet that seized the power.’) In the end, Lenin took that job – the chairmanship of Sovnarkom – himself. After the Civil War, Trotsky refused to serve as Lenin’s first deputy at Sovnarkom, a position that would have made him the likely successor when Lenin died and given him an institutional base to set against Stalin’s base in the Party. Equally damaging to Trotsky’s political prospects were his ineptness at factional organisation and remoteness from his followers. The greatest disadvantage of all, however, was that he not only disliked politics but also, more surprisingly, seems to have lacked any strong desire to become leader. This is clearer in Service than it was in Deutscher, whose Trotsky desired (or was willing to assume) the role of Lenin’s successor but was too proud to fight for it. Service’s Trotsky simply doesn’t want the job, though he doesn’t want anyone else to get it either. Vulnerable as a Johnny-come-lately in the Bolshevik Party, outmanoeuvred by Stalin at every turn, Trotsky was fighting not to be sole leader but to prevent Stalin from pushing him out of the leadership group altogether. Service’s description of all this is convincing, though he doesn’t explain – or not satisfactorily – why Trotsky felt that way. Out of respect for Lenin and a sense that his role had been unique? Because he was a Jew, and he didn’t think a Jewish leader would be popularly acceptable in Russia? Perhaps (my thought, not Service’s) he just didn’t think parties had to have single leaders. He hadn’t liked it in the early 1900s when Lenin split with the mainstream of Russian social democracy and established himself, contrary to revolutionary tradition, as the Bolsheviks’ undisputed leader. He may still, for all his later respect for and attachment to Lenin, have seen this as an aberration.

In 1917, when Trotsky was busy refusing top jobs in the new government, his preference, apparently, would have been to act as the new government’s press officer. In hindsight, one might feel that that would have been an incredible waste of talent, but Trotsky thought writing mattered – and it was what he liked to do. ‘He simply loved to be seated at a desk, fountain pen in hand, scribbling out the latest opus,’ Service writes. ‘Nobody dared disturb him when the flow of words was forming in his head. He accustomed his family, servants and personal assistants to these habits.’ He kept it up even during the Civil War; and in the first years of peace he wrote so much and on such varied topics (including everyday life and literature) that the Politburo asked him to cut back and pay more attention to ‘practical discussions inside the leadership’. He didn’t take any notice, of course. Trotsky had little respect for his Politburo colleagues, with the exception of Lenin; and he was conducting himself, in Service’s words, ‘as he thought a revolutionary thinker and leader ought to do’.

Deutscher greatly admired both the style and the content of Trotsky’s writings, but Service isn’t so keen. To be sure, Trotsky had intellect and an elegant prose style; he was an ‘outstanding publicist’, unrivalled in the Party for his range of cultural reference. But as a Marxist theorist, in Service’s opinion, he wasn’t on the level of Lenin, Plekhanov or Bogdanov because he didn’t offer a total system. ‘Intellectually he flitted from topic to topic’; he loved argument for its own sake, which ‘involved an ultimate lack of seriousness as an intellectual’. An ungrateful reaction from a biographer, one might think. But Service is also critical of the content of some of Trotsky’s political writing. While he agrees with the scholarly consensus that Stalin appropriated the position of the Left Opposition on such matters as industrialisation and collectivisation, he thinks Trotsky’s retrospective accounts exaggerated the coherence of his policy positions. This they undoubtedly did, particularly as it was one of Stalin’s talents to provoke Trotsky into arguments he would have done better to avoid. But Service uses the word ‘self-serving’ for Trotsky’s writing too often. Does this distinguish him from other political figures who have written retrospectively of their political lives? If anything, Trotsky seems more capable than most of detached analysis. The problem, perhaps, is that he is always so confident he’s got it right that a biographer, like Trotsky’s associates in life, may feel bullied.

One of the things he was sure he had got right was that Stalin was a nonentity, somebody who had achieved victory in the political struggle of the 1920s unfairly, by what Trotsky liked to call ‘bureaucratic’ manipulations. By that, he meant that Stalin in his capacity of general secretary ran the Party bureaucracy and was able to rally support within it – an illegitimate activity only if you took the Party’s ban on factions literally, which in practice nobody did, not even Trotsky. The idea that Stalin was a nonentity bedevilled Western scholarship for years, though it now seems finally to have been laid to rest. Equally wrong-headed was Trotsky’s deduction that Stalin must be the bureaucracy’s creature rather than its master. That said, the analysis he gave in The Revolution Betrayed of the Party’s Thermidorian degeneration and the rise of a privileged New Class (to use Milovan Djilas’s later term) has had an enormous influence; even Service concedes that he ‘proved persuasive about the “bureaucratisation” of the Soviet order’.

Would the Soviet Union have fared better under Trotsky’s leadership than Stalin’s? Service takes the position, increasingly common in recent scholarship, that it was six of one and half a dozen of the other. He’s surprised at ‘the number of people who had no sympathy for Communism and yet accepted the idea that the USSR would not have been a totalitarian despotism under Trotskyist rule’. For Service, Trotsky was ‘close to Stalin in intentions and practice. He was no more likely than Stalin to create a society of humanitarian socialism even though he claimed and assumed that he would.’ He ‘revelled in terror’ and was ‘a ruthless centraliser and a friend of army and police’. ‘As soon as he had power, he eagerly suppressed popular aspirations by violence.’

This is implicitly directed not only against those who (like Trotsky and Stalin themselves) have considered Trotsky and Stalin to be polar opposites, but also against wishful thinkers who assume that, because Trotsky was the more congenial personality and powerful intellect, he would have done a better job. One could quibble sentence by sentence, but Service’s basic point that Trotsky, like Stalin, was tough, willing to shed blood, and not a liberal democrat is surely correct. The oddness in this kind of argument is its heavy investment in historical inevitability: the outcome (‘socialism’, ‘totalitarian despotism’) is going to be the same, no matter what. One could understand this from a Marxist (even though in this case it’s the Marxists who reject the argument), but what is Service doing in the inevitability camp? The answer, no doubt, is that he thinks that anyone who suggests that more than one outcome was possible is trying to smuggle in the idea that it could have ended well. What Service means is that, regardless of whether it was Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin or any of the other Bolshevik revolutionaries in charge, it was bound to end badly.

It’s almost a relief to find Service finally taking a political and emotional position, after all that above-the-battle detachment. Still, it strikes me as an intellectual cop-out. Granted ‘what if’ history has its pitfalls, but does it make sense to say that, with Trotsky in power from the end of the 1920s rather than Stalin, everything would have turned out the same? In the first place, assuming that he adopted similarly radical policies, and encountered at least some of the same problems as a result, we don’t know that Trotsky would have been able either to hold the Party together (not his forte, as we have seen) or to prevent popular revolt. But suppose he had succeeded in those basic tasks, and done (as one might expect) a good job leading the country in the Second World War, is it remotely plausible that he would have become paranoid about Jews after the war and launched the ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign? Or that before the war he would have thought that the Party was full of ‘enemies of the people’ conspiring to destroy the Soviet Union, and mounted such a wild, crazy, undisciplined witchhunt as the Great Purges? Trotsky and Stalin had things in common, but the paranoid style wasn’t one of them. Of course Soviet history would have been different without Stalin. Or with Trotsky. Or even – since all history obeys the laws of chaos theory – just with a few extra butterfly wings flapping up in the Pamirs …

There wasn’t a great deal of doubt about the outcome for Trotsky, however, once Stalin had decided to kill him. The last years of Trotsky’s life are the subject of Bertrand Patenaude’s book, and although it’s not the first time this story has been told – Isaac Deutscher’s third volume, The Prophet Outcast, covers the same territory – it remains gripping. Patenaude’s focus is on the hunt from the point of view of the hunted, not the hunter (that’s Volkogonov and Sudoplatov territory). He tells it as an adventure-cum-spy story, with an abundance of Mexican context and atmosphere (probably its strongest point) and a lot of information on the array of young assistants – some of them Stalin’s men, others American Trotskyists, the majority future memoirists – who came and went. The personal and family side of Trotsky’s life is covered in detail too, based largely on the Harvard archive and the assistants’ reports. Sometimes it reads a little like a movie in the making, as in the lead-up to the murder itself, when the murderer, Mercader/ Jacson, arrives at teatime and finds Trotsky tending his rabbits: Trotsky ‘closed the doors to the hutches, brushed off his blue denim jacket, and began to walk towards the house. Natalia accompanied them to the door of the study, which Trotsky closed behind him … Suddenly a terrible cry pierced the afternoon quiet.’

The book is written for a popular audience, though carefully researched, with endnotes and a list of archival and published sources. No time is wasted disputing earlier scholarly accounts (not even indirectly disputing them, as Service does). There is little comment on the substance of Trotsky’s ideas or his revolutionary activities, except in so far as they impinge on his personal life, as in the case of his son Lev Sedov, who was his tireless political agent in Berlin and Paris. (Patenaude returns an open verdict on whether Sedov’s sudden death in a Paris clinic in 1938 was murder on Stalin’s orders; Service, in a slightly more detailed account, comes to the same conclusion.)

Trotsky and Natalia arrived in Mexico early in 1937, and at first found it liberating: they liked the Blue House which Diego Rivera had made available to them; they took some car trips; Trotsky went hunting and fishing; he had his fling with Kahlo. But as the hunt got closer, the Blue House and its successor turned into fortresses; the household lived behind barricaded doors and windows, and everybody’s nerves were strained. But the Old Man, as his assistants called him, kept writing, writing, writing – to rebut the accusations made against him at the Moscow trials, to publicise Stalin’s crimes and to analyse the root of them, to keep in contact with his followers, and for the practical reason that income from his writing was what they lived on. Finally, after some failed attempts, the murder was carried out rather bunglingly by Ramón Mercader, acting on Stalin’s orders under the direction of Leonid Eitingon (Eitingon was in Mexico for the event, along with Ramón’s mother, Caridad, whose part in this tangled story is explained in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s The Eitingons).[*] The weapon, known in legend as the ice-pick, was a mountaineer’s ice-axe, according to Service, and something like a prospector’s pick, according to Patenaude; neither of these clarifications left me much the wiser.

Patenaude ends with a quotation – sympathetic, if a touch condescending – from one of the American assistants: ‘Optimism was all he really had.’ Service is more cruel: ‘Death came early to him because he fought for a cause that was more destructive than he had ever imagined.’ Is there a hint of ‘got what he deserved’ there? In any case, it’s a far cry from Deutscher, who entitled his last chapter ‘Victory in Defeat’, and bade farewell to Trotsky as one who, with his blood, ‘nourished the seed of the future’. Volkogonov, always critical of Trotsky’s lack of appreciation of things Russian, takes the prize for most bizarre conclusion with a final comment faulting the exiled Trotsky for lack of homesickness: ‘where there should have been a longing to see his country once again, there was only a desire for revolution.’

Of course, it wasn’t Russia but Ukraine, in contemporary terms, that was Trotsky’s homeland. It occurred to me to try a Google search to find out if Trotsky, as a native son, has picked up any admirers there. Sure enough, a Ukrainian diaspora site claims him ( What a find, I thought; fragments of the past preserved in popular memory. Well, not exactly. Judging by Google hits, Trotsky remains famous throughout the world, though less in the former Soviet Union than elsewhere; but in Russia and Ukraine a good share of his fame comes from the American biopic Frida, based on the life of Frida Kahlo, a big hit in these countries in the early 2000s. Trotsky, played by the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, is featured in a supporting role as Frida’s revolutionary lover: ‘a funny old fellow’, according to the Ukrainian website, ‘full of his own, perhaps crazy, ideas’. If that’s an accurate report, Rush or his director seem to have got the character wrong. Trotsky was not a funny old fellow. He was a formidable and impressive figure, even in defeat and what he called old age. Not long after his 60th birthday, he wrote a last will and testament in which he reaffirmed his faith in ‘the Communist future of mankind’ as well as his confidence that future revolutionary generations would see through the ‘stupid and vile slander of Stalin and his agents’ and rehabilitate him. ‘I will die a proletarian revolutionary, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist,’ he wrote. And so, a few months later, he did.

[*] Faber, 476 pp., £20, November 2009, 978 0 571 23472.